October 26, 1863 (Monday)
Confederate General James Longstreet had become complacent. His attempts to convince Jefferson Davis to oust Braxton Bragg from the command of the Army of Tennessee were all for naught. He was stuck with Bragg, stuck in Tennessee, and tasked with protecting the left flank of the army. If a Federal attack was to attempt to break the siege of Chattanooga, it would undoubtedly fall upon the left.
Anchoring the Confederate line around the Union Army of the Cumberland was Lookout Mountain. Thought it was secure, the valley beyond (named Lookout Valley), was not. The Federal supply line running from Bridgeport had to traverse ground that had become impossible. To break the siege, a new line had to be opened. This would require Union supplies to cross the river twice, but would, in the end, be a much easier route. This, to Longstreet, was general knowledge.
“I have no doubt but the enemy will cross below and move against our rear,” wrote Longstreet on this date. “It is his easier and safest move.” Longstreet’s suspicion had less to do with the Federals opening a line to Chattanooga than it did with getting behind Longstreet’s Corps and launching an attack. Either way, however, Longstreet did nothing about it. In his defense, Longstreet forwarded the warnings and intelligence gathered to Bragg, who also did nothing about it.
By the 25th, reports were coming in that a Federal force was massing at Bridgeport, downriver from Chattanooga. Several weeks back, Bragg ordered Longstreet to deploy skirmishers along Raccoon Mountain, the eminence that lay on the other side of Lookout Valley. For this, Longstreet selected Evander Law’s Brigade, sending two regiments under Col. William Oates to cover all of the ground west of Lookout Mountain. The remaining three regiments were kept in reserve on the eastern side of the mountain.
Things fell into a monotonous routine until around the 24th, when Law noticed that the Federals seemed to be up to something around Brown’s Ferry. He requested a full division, but received only his three other regiments. He placed them as he saw fit, supporting Col. Oates’ two very spread out regiments.
The following day (the 25th), the same day that reports of a Federal build up at Bridgeport filtered into Longstreet’s headquarters, General Law took a leave of absence to visit the wounded General John Bell Hook in Atlanta. This left Col. Oates in command of the entire brigade. Unfortunately, a rather large mountain separated Oats from his new temporary command. Also, though Law informed division commander, General Micah Jenkins, nobody ever bothered to tell Col. Oates that he (Law) was leaving. Oates didn’t even know where Law had placed the three additional regiments. The only thing Oates was sure about was his orders to “picket the river, keep the enemy from using it, and to gather all the supplies for the men” that he could find.
Shortly after Law left, either Jenkins or Longstreet recalled the three regiments, pulling them to the east side of Lookout Mountain. All through this date, from the rises above Brown’s Ferry, Col. Oates could see that something wasn’t right. He noticed “a part of artillery going down on the opposite side of the river and that their pickets were doubled along the water front.”
Before Longstreet and Bragg were multiple reports from several different sources telling of a Federal buildup at Bridgeport and some strange happenings at Brown’s Ferry. The only troops between both of these locations and Longstreet’s left flank were the two regiments under Col. Oates (and the three wayward regiments left somewhere out there by either Jenkins or Longstreet).
General Law reported back after dark on this date, and immediately noticed that the three regiments were missing. During the composition of an angry note to division headquarters, a staff officer told him that General Jenkins had taken a short leave of absence. Law, now in charge of the entire division, was completely dumbfounded. At once he ordered the three regiments back to the initial position in which he placed them and sent and aide to check on Col. Oates’ picket line.
Also after dark, Col. Oates received a message from John Hunt Morgan’s Cavalry noting that the massed Federal troops at Bridgeport were clearly trying to cross the river. If the Yankees made it across, warned the message, Oates’ line of retreat would be cut off. With this information, Oates wrote General Longstreet himself, telling him of the new intelligence and of how he feared he would be attacked before dawn.
Before midnight, Oates’ courier to Longstreet returned. The message had been delivered, but no action was to be taken. The colonel laid down to finally get some rest, but would not long be able to sleep. By this time, it was well after midnight. The fog had settled along the Tennessee River, blanketing the coming Federal attack.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p220, 224; The War Between the Union and the Confederacy by William Oats; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes by Peter Cozzens; The Army of the Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. [↩]